How to Develop Incredible Mental Toughness for Health, Work, and Life

Timothy Goodman

March 29
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Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist.

But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Let’s talk about that now.

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

By James Clear | Behavioral Psychology, Grit

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist.

But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Let’s talk about that now.

Before we talk about how to get started, though, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insights? Download my free PDF guide “Transform Your Habits” here.

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

When Is Mental Toughness Useful?

Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.

In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…

  • Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”
  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.
—Angela Duckworth

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

By James Clear | Behavioral Psychology, Grit

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist.

But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Let’s talk about that now.

Before we talk about how to get started, though, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insights? Download my free PDF guide “Transform Your Habits” here.

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

When Is Mental Toughness Useful?

Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.

In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…

Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”

When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.

Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field. —Angela Duckworth

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

You can read the whole research study here, but this is the bottom line:

In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance that predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.

In other words, talent is overrated.

What Makes Someone Mentally Tough?

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world?

In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency.

Mentally tough athletes are more consistent than others. They don’t miss workouts. They don’t miss assignments. They always have their teammates back.

Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.

Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.

The good news is that grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.

How?

1. Define what mental toughness means for you

For the West Point army cadets being mentally tough meant finishing an entire summer of Beast Barracks.

For you, it might be…

  • going one month without missing a workout
  • going one week without eating processed or packaged food
  • delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
  • meditating every morning this week
  • grinding out one extra rep on each set at the gym today
  • calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
  • spending one hour doing something creative every evening this week

Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. Mental toughness is built through small physical wins

You can’t become committed or consistent with a weak mind. How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you you were tired? How many reps have you missed out on because your mind said, “Nine reps is enough. Don’t worry about the tenth.” Probably thousands for most people, including myself. And 99% are due to weakness of the mind, not the body.
—Drew Shamrock

So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt?

There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?

Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.

3. Mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation

Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes.

Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.

Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart.

I’ve written about this many times before. Here are the basic steps for building a new habit and links to further information on doing each step.

  1. Start by building your identity.
  2. Focus on small behaviors, not life–changing transformations.
  3. Develop a routine that gets you going regardless of how motivated you feel.
  4. Stick to the schedule and forget about the results.
  5. When you slip up, get back on track as quickly as possible.

Mental toughness comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.

How Have You Developed Mental Toughness?

Our mission as a community is clear: we are looking to live a healthy lives and make a difference in the world.

To that end, I see it as my responsibility to equip you with the best information, ideas, and strategies for living healthier, becoming happier, and making a bigger impact with your life and work.

But no matter what strategies we discuss, no matter what goals we set our sights on, no matter what vision we have for ourselves and the people around us … none of it can become a reality without mental toughness, perseverance, and grit.

When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on schedule.

There will always be extreme moments that require incredible bouts of courage, resiliency, and grit … but for 95% of the circumstances in life, toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people.

4 Exercises for Strengthening Your Mental Toughness

You may be wondering at this point: what is mental toughness, after all? “Much of mental toughness is simply attitude and self esteem,” writes Stewart Smith, a former Navy SEAL and author of . “I am of the personal belief that through tough physical training, proper mindset, and a high level of maturity that mental toughness is born.”

In other words, mental toughness comes from a combination of factors rather than any single one. Here are four strategies that can help you achieve that rare combination.

1. Train Yourself to Increase Your Confidence

Jon Paulson was just 19 years old when he enlisted in the Marines. He spent six months training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego in 1964-1965. “The training is very, very rigorous,” says Paulson. “You do things over and over and over again and you become good at it. And being good at something gives you confidence.”

That training gave Paulson crucial confidence, which he would need a few months later, when, in July 1965, he was deployed as part of the second wave of Marines to enter South Vietnam. He was in charge of a platoon of 40 men, and was just 22 years old.

“The number one objective in the Marines is to complete the mission; the second is to protect the men in the platoon,” says Paulson. “So the mission supersedes the safety of the men. As a platoon leader, you know you’re going to have to send a squad directly into the line of fire, but you have to do that to accomplish the greater mission.”

When making those kinds of calls, you absolutely must project confidence, he says. “Even if you’re leading just four people, you have to have confidence — and have to have the confidence of those three men in your command,” says Paulson.

The same principle which works for the Marines — aggressive training to increase confidence — can be applied in the civilian world. “If you get up and speak a lot then you get better at it and you will get more confident,” says Paulson.

Exercise:

Paulson was trained for confidence by the U.S. Marines. But you can train yourself to be confident as well.

It starts with steady and deliberate practice, and continually testing yourself to live on the edge of failure.

LaRae Quy, the author of Secrets of a Strong Mind, suggests a strategy to increase your confidence by overcoming smaller failures. The goal is to help you become more confident in the face of larger challenges. Create a “petri dish” in your life, writes Quy, “a little area in which not succeeding.” This could mean learning a musical instrument or a new sport or studying a new language.

By challenging yourself on a daily basis with a skill you are not fully mastering, “you develop greater confidence in your skills and training and avoid greater meltdowns when the larger failures do occur,” says Quy.

2. Embrace Your Sense of Duty

Often the simplest form of mental toughness is simply to tell yourself, “It’s my job.”

My grandfather was a B-17 pilot in Europe during WWII, flying bombing missions out of England over German cities.

In May of 1945 he was on a bombing mission over Nuremberg when they were attacked by German fighters and “got the hell shot out of them,” my father said later.

After the war, my grandfather was stationed as an air rescue pilot at an air base in Narsasauwak (now spelled Narsarsuaq), Greenland — an area renowned for its heavy fog.

One day, two airplanes were flying in together from overseas and the fog layer was so low you couldn’t see the surrounding mountains. The planes had limited working instruments and had little chance of landing without assistance.

The base commanders “basically said they can crash land on the ice cap and we’ll try to save them,” recalled my father. “Dad and his crew volunteered to fly up and help the two planes land.”

My grandfather flew above the cloud layer, and using what he knew about the mountain range, had each plane follow him through the fog directly to the runway so they could land. My grandfather received an air medal for the rescue.

I asked my father why he thought my grandfather volunteered to go up. “It was a sense of duty,” he said. “It was his job. He was a pilot and that’s what they do.”

Exercise:

Write down a “job description” for all the different hats you wear in your life. Not just for your work, but in the other roles you fulfill, like husband, father, and mentor (Brett’s post on creating a blueprint for your life can help you recognize and define these roles). Tape these descriptions in a place where you will see them often or keep them in a notebook and review them weekly. No matter your different responsibilities, treat them like duties. Take the option of shirking them off the table entirely. When times get tough, and you’re fatigued, annoyed, bored, and stressed, remember that it’s your duty to get your job done. You agreed to do it, and a man keeps his word. People’s lives may not literally hang in the balance, but your associates and loved ones do absolutely depend on you and your ability to stay strong when things around them get shaky.

3. Do What You Do For Your Team

Each of the men I interviewed for this article said versions of the same thing, across multiple generations and across multiple wars. They each said they fought for each other, rather than any larger principle or purpose.

“You get to know your fellow troops,” says Paulson. “You get to know your buddies really well, very very well. Not one person who fought in Vietnam ever prevent communism from spreading. Not one.”

Instead, Marines fought for one another, for their fellow soldiers, said Paulson. “The Marines have a saying, ‘No one left behind,’ whether the person is dead or alive. It’s really true.”

Jeremy Hall, who fought in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed. “It was more about the team — it was about the men and women who I was serving with,” says Hall. “It wasn’t about the cause. It wasn’t patriotism, though I was patriotic. It was about the people I was with — these were people who were trying to create better lives for themselves. They just happened to serve during a period of war.”

The lesson for me is that when you endure a challenge in life, you need to have a strong team around you. Whether you are fighting to keep your company afloat, facing an illness in the family, or just lost a job, your mental strength is more likely to come from those who you have around you — your team — than it is commitment to any larger cause or purpose.

Exercise:

Write down the names of your trusted teammates — it could be your family, colleagues, or friends. Under each name, write down two things you can do to strengthen your bond with that person. Work to surround yourself with people who you trust and care for, and you’ll be more likely to endure during times of challenge.

4. Find Pride on the Inside

Today’s culture is filled with awards and rewards. You get a trophy just for being on the team.

In fact, you don’t need a ribbon or a certificate to take pride in yourself and your accomplishments.

Hall told me a story of a sudden knife fight he got into in Iraq in 2003 with “a very fast-moving Iraqi.” The man slashed Hall’s wrist, but he “hung in there and knocked him out.” As he fell, another special forces soldier shot the man in the head.

Hall didn’t receive a purple heart for the injury because the paperwork was never processed. When I asked Hall if he was disappointed by this, he shrugged it off. “That’s just war,” he said.

Hall didn’t need a purple ribbon on a metal clasp to take pride in his achievements. Nor does he allow himself to feel disappointment by not having the distinctive medal.

After he left Vietnam, Jon Paulson found he didn’t need any modern trappings of success either.

“Any time that I would get in a situation where I lost a client or lost a deal or lost a job, I would say, ‘What am I getting worked up over this for, I’m alive, I’m happily married,’” says Paulson. “I’m not climbing the corporate ladder, and I’m not going to be a multi-millionaire, but that doesn’t matter to me.”

Paulson said it was enough to have pride that he was a good leader and that he was brave in leading 40 men into battle. “I think anybody would say Lieutenant Paulson was calm under fire when we had to rush a hill or take out a machine gun. He didn’t stay behind. He led.”

Today, Paulson is dealing with the effects of constant contact with Agent Orange while in Vietnam, but he doesn’t regret his involvement in the war. “I feel very proud of what I did. I don’t feel proud of calling in jet bombers on a village; I don’t feel proud for what our country did to the Vietnamese people, but I do feel proud of what I did for my platoon. I was a good leader.”

Exercise:

Write down a list of all the things you are proud of in your life, especially things you’ve never been recognized for by others. Notice the satisfaction

you feel from your accomplishments and worthy traits, and realize you don’t need the validation of others for them to be real. Like Jeremy Hall, your life should not be any different because you have a ribbon or an acrylic award you use as a paperweight on your desk. Take pride internally.

Go Exercise Your Mental Toughness

Hall says one of the most important aspects of mental toughness is not to worry about failure, but simply to make sure you always try. “I had a mentor who said you can fail and we’ll figure out how to execute the next time, but what I can’t stand is if you don’t try your best,” says Hall. “I’m not going to be a winner at everything I do but I can at least find out where I am going to win and get better at that.”

Personally, I have never been in war. I feel fortunate I never had to decide which group of my closest buddies would lead the charge up a hill toward a gunnery like Paulson has, or fight my way out of a knife fight, like Hall has.

But I have suffered setbacks in life, and I know I will again. And you will too. And that’s why spending time learning from brave individuals who have demonstrated tremendous mental strength is well worth your time.

So go out there and exercise your mental toughness. Challenge yourself on a daily basis with a skill you have not mastered so you can improve your confidence for when times get rough. Embrace, and take pride in, your own sense of duty.

Be proud of yourself and don’t let external rewards or awards determine your self-worth.

And surround yourself with a team you trust. Remind yourself when you go through struggles, you are all in it together.

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